Paper Forests

“While your children and grandchildren are away, I like to think that they’re visiting a fantastic place, somewhere where they aren’t restrained by an illness or held back by their own emotions. I like to believe that they’re in a place called the Paper Forest, where there is nothing but health and happiness to greet them.” // this blurb and cover is a work in progress.

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4. Chapter Two


Gracie is right: we aren’t alone.

           

The first monsters appear when we’ve reached our third rest stop. By now, the forest has changed again, sprouting leaves the colours of flames and grass adorned with splashes of white flowers. An unnatural, choking mist swirls and sprawls across the forest floor, trapping the trees within its grasp. The bark has the appearance of driftwood, twisting in patterns that remind me of seaside waves; even the moss is kelp-like. They are soft, damp, yet my fingers come away dry. Dying embers of sunlight streak through the leaves in shadowy beams but the fog casts it into sepia tones.

 

The forest could have become one of the most beautiful of photographs. That was until Ansel spotted something moving in the distance.

 

“Stop!” Ansel demands suddenly, throwing out his arms to stop us from walking past him. “There’s someone ahead of us. I think they’re walking towards us.”

 

I squint into the distance, confronted by a translucent sheet of white. “Are you sure? I can’t see anything.”

 

“I’m sure. It’s not someone, but it’s definitely something.”

 

That’s when I see it: a figure moving in the distance, moving towards us. It’s about a hundred metres away when the shapeless blur begins to expand.

 

“It’s three somethings.”

           

The monsters advance on us. In all honesty, we don’t do much to escape from them. With each slow movement, slime drips from their skin, oozing puddles of white and depositing them on the ground, turning fallen leaves to decayed mush. The sickly white substance is like a liquid, reminding me of the maggot-like texture of the eyes of a dead man who had been forgotten in his apartment for a few months, ready to burst at the slightest touch. I’ve never seen a dead person, but I’ve seen enough in films to guess what it must be like.

 

“Shouldn’t we be running?” Ansel asks, his breathing becoming erratic. Gracie shuffles away from him. The other boy’s body has tensed as if he is preparing for a fight.

           

We should be, but I’m too scared to run.

 

I can feel sweat drench by skin, the throbbing of my eyes, the ringing screams vibrating in my ears, and the thumping of my heart against my chest. Gracie’s hand slips into mine, her nails digging into my palms as I curl it into a fist. I can’t hear my rapid breathing, but I can feel the oxygen flowing in and out of my lungs. In and out. In and out. In and out.

 

Fear tortures my guts, churning my stomach in tense cramps. Fear engulfs my conscience, knocking all other thoughts aside. Fear overwhelms my body, making it drastically exhausted. However, most of all, the fear is making me calm, and that is what scares me most.

 

“We can’t run. They probably know this forest a lot better than us, and there has to be more of them somewhere else.”

 

“What are we going to do?”

 

“There’s nothing we can do.”

 

The monsters get closer and I get a clearer look at their appearance. A foot-long beak between the eyes caused by a prolongation of the head. A mouth which opens downward and is armed with terrific mandibles. A pair of huge, compound eyes like enormous crystals of cut glass. A shapeless body resembling a six-foot-tall maggot with crusty flaps of concave skin covering the stomach. A stench of sewage and rotten fish, potent enough for Gracie to take a few steps back and retch dryly behind a tree.

 

That’s when I notice a teenage girl standing a few metres behind us. Well, a teenage girl with transparent skin, standing in a pool of smoke. I wouldn’t have noticed her if the forest seen through her body wasn’t a charred skeleton of what could be reality. The smoke makes no sound and it only parts to swallow up her feet as she marches across the forest floor. Dead leaves whisper from under the skin of the mist.

 

A sudden gush of pain jolts through my body. My stomach aches, my arms lose tension, and my legs begin to weaken. I drop to the ground. My tongue is soaked in the taste of blood. Bruised and winded, with a leg now in agony, I grab the closest thing which will serve as a weapon – a fallen tree branch – and thrust it forward, feeling it encounter something. I shut my eyes and push harder until there is no longer anything resisting the force. When I open my eyes again, there is nothing in front of me besides a stick with the end coated in thick white slime.

 

One down, two left. And the mysterious smoke girl whose body trembles in the breeze.

 

The boy has the same idea as me. In the frozen second between stand off and fighting, I see his eyes flick from me to the monster. His face is unreadable, no fear, no invitational smirk. His expression doesn’t change as he steps forwards and plunges his branch into the monster’s stomach, showing no signs of remorse as the body caves in around the branch and breaks apart like putty.

 

We forget about the third monster until we hear Ansel’s scream. I turn around and the monster’s claws are wrapped around Ansel’s forearm, the skin singeing from beneath its touch. It’s too late for us to help him, so we stand frozen with fear, wondering what’s going to happen to him as soon as the monster releases his arm.

 

After a few more seconds, the monster collapses to the ground, its body crumbling beneath it. Ansel drops to his knees, shouting hoarsely and clutching at his arm: the shape of the monster’s hand has been burned into his flesh. Gracie runs to Ansel’s side, stabbing the monster in the chest with the stick as she goes past, reducing its form to a pile of ashes. Her knuckles are white from gripping tightly at the stick, almost as if she’s afraid to let go.

 

I’m still afraid, but I loosen my grip on the branch, noticing that the bumps in the surface have imprinted themselves into my palm. It was a good weapon in the moment. Hopefully, I won’t need it for a while.

 

When I turn around to hurl the branch away, the smoke girl is still stood a short distance behind me. Her eyes meet mine for a moment before her body dissolves and evaporates into smoke. I blink, then she’s gone.

 

***

 

As we continue our journey, the temperature begins to drop. The air is frozen lace on our skin, delicate and cold, like winter waves across sand. One half of the sky is washed with grey, watery light, illuminated by the partially sunk sun. The other half is a matte blank canvas with no stars. Other than us and the darkness, all that seems to exist is the harsh bite of the air that can’t be blocked out by our clothes.

           

We built a campfire and the heat seems to suck into the frigid air before reaching our frozen hands. We add more wood and poke it with sticks, but it seems to die a little each time, unready to devour the new offerings. The light cast by the flames dances across the trunks of the trees, twisting and curling in obscure shapes. Matching every dip and sweep, the fire itself is pulsating, the glowing embers moving in rhythm with the flames. It is mesmerizing to watch: an array of orange and red giving way to yellow and white near the centre, like the fire is charming our worries from us and sending them away along with the dark smoke.

           

Ansel lays on a log with his wounded arm clutched against his chest, rocking back and forth and whimpering. He no longer needs to sleep, but his eyes are screwed shut with the determination to escape from this world for just a few minutes. I wonder what he thinks about as he lays there, if he thinks about his family, his home, or if his thoughts have been consumed by pain.

 

Gracie sits at the end of the log by his feet, legs kicking the air, clearing the ground by several inches as they swing back and forth. Her face has an unhealthy look to it and her eyes are hard open as she stares at nothing in the distance.

 

“Are you alright, Gracie?” I ask, reaching out to rest my hand on her arm. She becomes still and quiet for a moment.

 

“No,” comes out almost like an accident, spilling out of her lips. Her hazel eyes lose their harshness, becoming rounder, glossier. Then all at once her face buckles, her breathing stopping momentarily as the tears begin to stream. She hits my hand away from her, stands up, and runs off into the trees. Ansel opens his eyes briefly, but he decides not to go after her.

 

He told me earlier that he thinks she knows something about the forest, although she doesn’t want to tell us. He said that giving her space would eventually force her to tell her secrets. I don’t think so, but there’s not much else for us to do.

           

The boy is sat on the log where I was before, close enough for us to have been sat together, but keeping his distance. The hairs on his arms are raised and the bite of the wind has left its mark in the form of small bumps on his skin. I imagine that the bite is more than flesh deep: blood running cold through his veins and his bones becoming chilled. The flames of the fire may look like they’re burning warm, but the heat doesn’t reach our skin.

 

“Don’t you want to rest for a bit?” I ask.

 

He shakes his head frantically, unruly hair falling into his eyes. Purple welts are scattered across his arms like a disease, a new one for each hour we’ve been in the forest. A bruise that had begun as a purple stain above his eyebrow has sunk into the socket itself, and now it has the appearance of a black eye. He’s stopped rubbing at them so I presume that he’s not in pain.

 

“Why not?”

           

Then, the boy opens his mouth and whispers the first words he’s said since we arrived in this forest around five days ago.

 

“I don’t want to sleep.” His words accompanied with a dry laugh, almost as if he is mocking himself. “My mind has the scary capability of being dark and demented.”

 

“You’re afraid of your dreams?”

 

“Yes,” he whispers. “Who isn’t?”

 

With that, the conversation is over. Ansel stands up and holds his hand out to Gracie, helping her to her feet. I brush dirt off my trousers and wince at the new stains.

 

Now that we know the monsters are real, we need to keep moving.

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